A tame civil society in China?

Via Kevin Drum (where the comments so far are better than you might expect) a link to an article by Christina Larson in the new Washington Monthly about environmentalism in China. It’s a nice piece, although not much of it will be terribly new for the Old China Hands who read this blog.

What I found most interesting was her emphasis on the attempts of the central government to encourage the creation of useful but not dangerous environmental groups. It is not news that China has changed some since the death of Mao, and that zhongnanhai has both encouraged things like local elections and a freer press and found that it has less ability to prevent them than it might wish. In the case of the environment Beijing is encouraging local environmental groups to form and to help the state in carrying out what some would consider pretty basic state functions, like collecting reliable statistics. The problem with this is that many of these groups end up becoming political. Larson talks a lot about Green Watershed a group that actually managed to get some dams canceled. Its leader Yu Xiaogang was happy with this success, but was convinced that more fundamental changes were needed.

“There will always be another dam proposal, another financier,” he explained. He said he wants a reliable process for gathering public and expert input while plans are being drafted, not when the bulldozers are ready to roll.
“What we have got to do,” Yu said, “is change the system.” The veteran environmentalist Wen Bo also told me, “For China’s environment to improve, I think the political system needs to change. I don’t know exactly what the future needs to look like, but it needs to be more democratic, more free society, more free media.”

The obvious comparison for me are the New Policies reforms at the end of the Qing. Just as in the present the state set people (then the local elite rather than NGOs) loose to carry out reforms. The one I know most about are the opium suppression campaigns, which were decreed by the state but at the retail level largely carried out by local elites. In a 1906 edict the Guangxu Emperor explicitly encouraged the founding of anti-opium societies. He warned, however that “Such society shall be purely for the anti-opium smoking, and the society shall not discuss any other matters, such as political questions bearing on topical affairs or local administration or any similar matter.” I suspect that the current attempts to harness civil society will be even less ‘successful’ than in the Qing. In the Qing case the state took on all of the responsibility for negotiating an end to imports of foreign opium and most of the responsibility for ending domestic production. Locally led anti-opium societies were to eliminate opium smoking, a task to which they were well suited. The state was entirely incapable of collecting information on opium smoking nationwide, and it lacked the institutional reach to change popular behavior to that extent. The local elite knew more about local behavior and had a long tradition of trying to mould popular morality. What could go wrong?

One pretty obvious difference here is that the division of labor is not the same. The environmental groups seem to be tasked with the entire job of saving China’s environment, and I doubt they have the power. Larson points out that the environmentalists get in trouble in a hurry if they criticize the politically well-connected. Public criticism can have effect when it aligns itself with factional politics, but it is not yet ‘out of control’ in the sense of being really autonomous from the formal political structure.

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